What I Learned at the London Android Developer Lab

Posted in Android by Dan on October 3rd, 2011

This morning I took a brutally early train to London in order to arrive in time for Google’s Android Developer Lab at 8:30 AM. Developing Honeycomb applications for tablet devices was the primary focus of this gathering (around 30-40 Android developers attended) and Google’s affable developer advocates Nick Butcher and Richard Hyndman were our hosts.


Honeycomb has been on my radar since it was launched back in February but until today I hadn’t got much further than reading the overviews of what it means for developers (e.g. fragments and the action bar) and briefly playing with the painfully slow emulator.

One reason for my lack of Honeycomb activity is that the usage figures are still very low compared to non-Honeycomb devices (Honeycomb runs on just 1.4% of Android devices according to Google’s most recent figures). Today these devices are all tablets of one type or another but Nick cautioned against developing apps with the mindset that Honeycomb = tablets. The Honeycomb APIs are coming to phones with Ice Cream Sandwich (the next major Android version). ICS is apparently informally known as “Honeyphone” within Google, reflecting its focus on reunifying the two streams of Android by bringing Honeycomb’s innovations to phones.

Of course, some of Honeycomb’s features, such as fragments, are already available on devices running Android 1.6 or later via the Android Compatibility Library. Following on from this, another of Nick’s key points was that, whether you are targeting phones, tablets or both, if you are developing Android apps today and you are not using fragments then you are doing it wrong. Fragments are central to Honeycomb, fragments will be central to Ice Cream Sandwich, and fragments are already available (through the compatibility library) for all Android versions back as far 1.6 (Donut).

Android Market

The topics of the day were not all Honeycomb-specific. Richard provided a lot of useful and interesting information about the Android Market. One of the facts that stood out for me was that 7 of the top 10 highest grossing apps on the Market are not even paid-for apps, they are free apps that incorporate in-app billing. If you haven’t considered the in-app billing model for monetising your apps, you could be missing out.

As part of the Market discussions there was a lady in attendance (whose name escapes me, sorry) from the team responsible for the Android Market publisher console. She was collecting feedback to help guide future improvements. There were a lot of good suggestions made.

Richard also gave us the latest figures for Android device activations. There have now been over 150 million total Android device activations and this is increasing at the astonishing rate of 550k per day.

Porting Apps to Honeycomb

There are two very straightforward things to do first when updating an existing app to run on Honeycomb-powered devices. Both involve minor changes to AndroidManifest.xml. Firstly you should set android:targetSdkVersion to 11 or higher. This declares that your application is Honeycomb-aware and will result in it being given the Honeycomb default holographic theme.

The second thing to do is to turn on hardware-accelerated graphics. You need to test your app after enabling acceleration as there are some scenarios that might be problematic, such as custom drawing code, but for the vast majority of apps it is a free performance boost.

As for the frustrations of the very slow Honeycomb emulator, changes are afoot that will address that. In the meantime, Samsung furnished those developers fortunate enough to be present at the Android Developer Lab with a very agreeable alternative to using the emulator.